All of Us, Not Just DISD, Share Blame for the Death of Tammy Simpson’s Son

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Even before Tammy Simpson blamed Dallas ISD for the death of her son, former Wilmer-Hutchins basketball player Troy Causey, I was trying to assign blame for his death. It’s a natural reaction after tragedy: find out what went wrong, fix it so the tragedy doesn’t repeat itself.

In this case, I think it’s easy to find yourself coming down on one of two sides: 1) Tammy Simpson is right and her son was a pawn in a game played in violation of state rules. (It’s worth noting that superintendent Mike Miles said that the district had let down its student-athletes.) 2) Or you say that Simpson’s son was, by her own admission, deeply troubled, often despondent, and an indifferent student — someone old enough to know that what he was doing was wrong but not willing to do what was necessary to pull himself out of an increasingly untenable situation.

Myself, I think both are true and neither go far enough. Because I’m not sure that only addressing administrative oversight or rule-breaking coaches solves the problem. I think we need to look at the entire system of public high school athletics and ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions, starting with: Do they do more harm than good?

In this case, it’s clearly the former, and there’s blame to go around. As Miles said, the district shares the responsibility for not catching the coaches and administrators who recruited, profited from, then all-but-abandoned Causey. Given this, Miles clearly did the right thing (his only option, really) in bringing the hammer down on the 15 folks the district believes participated in the recruitment shell game. When I read DMN editorial writer Jim Mitchell’s take, my first thought was that he was spot-on when he said:

Give DISD chief Mike Miles credit for taking on a jock culture and the adults who enable it  to abuse students. Firings like these are needed to dismantle adult power fiefdoms built on athletics and cheating. DISD isn’t the only district facing this problem, but DISD has the power to clean up its own house and is doing so. The fact that this action is so public and sweeping should begin to rein in blatant abuses. It is not being swept under the rug.

I hope parents “get it” and do not interpret this as an attack on their schools. That would be a willful corruption of the truth. Even if you buy into the idea that athletics is the only way out for some kids, how can you buy into sanctioned cheating? And if sports administrators continue to treat jocks as commodities, then what does that say about their commitment to preparing these kids for life? Well, what it says is despicable.

By Sunday, though, I was having doubts. Mitchell is right that this was the right thing for the administration to do, but does its responsibility end there? Shouldn’t DISD — shouldn’t we — be asking whether this system, by its very nature (and by the attention we pay to it), incentivizes coaches to skirt the rules? The answer: Of course it does. And since this is true, shouldn’t we acknowledge that simply firing those who got caught isn’t going to solve the problem?

That fact  is the root of some justified anger on the part of those coach/administrator defenders. They know the game is rigged. If coaches at certain high schools (traditional basketball and football powers) don’t get enough Ws and Ls, they find themselves under pressure, if not forced out. They’re not told to skirt UIL rules, true, but they see nothing is done to take that incentive out of the system. (For example, tying graduation rates or test-score improvements to tenure/raises instead of wins and losses.)

And here’s the kicker for me: When the district has been failing kids like Troy Causey for two decades as a matter of course (promoting kids who can’t read, graduating kids who aren’t college-ready, ignoring research that shows one in five of us need radically supportive environments to survive, on and on), it’s not surprising people a) see sports as the only way out for such kids, and b) rail against the architects of that system and see themselves as convenient scapegoats.

It’s a complicated issue, one with no easy fixes. (And of course not unique to DISD.) How do you take away the overwhelming incentives for coaches, administrators, parents, and very poor kids to participate in the blatant rule-skirting that has such high rewards for all involved?

My feeling, at least initially: You’ve got to change the system. You’ve got to take away the charade we have of forcing big-time athletic programs to pretend they’re a necessary, irreplaceable part of the public-school educational experience. We need to explore the European club sports-varsity sports model, where professional clubs sponsor club teams at every youth level. Even if it’s impossible to fully divest ourselves of varsity sports because, you know, America, it’s worth giving consideration to a hybrid system. In this way, young elite athletes (like Causey) can be brought up in a professional environment, tutored and taught a vocation as part of the process. If they don’t make it long term, the pro clubs have an obligation to ease their transition back to the public education system (high school or university), or assist in job placement.

It’s not as radical an idea as you may think. It’s been discussed by former high school coaches who see no hope in fixing the current high school sports structure. And even though there are problems in the European club model, they are modest compared to the corruption the current system invites. And even though most people would never support a complete eradication of high-profile varsity sports, England has managed to incorporate both into its high school system — club sports being the place where elite athletes learn their craft, and school teams being like advanced intramural activities, which would allow for keeping school rivalries and competitions alive, albeit without the sort of athletes that draw local TV coverage.

And that’s a good thing. Because we’re all responsible for allowing high school sports to morph into semi-professional status. We tut-tut when these sort of scandals take place, we shrug our shoulders, we say what’re ya gonna do? It’s big business. That’s not good enough. We have to put pressure on ourselves to research and consider other options. We have to ask our board members and our administrators to find ways to either fix the current system (I don’t think that’s possible) or consider reforming it. Until we do, we’re all responsible for a system that rewards those who recruit the best athletes they can find, no matter what’s best for the kid or their family.